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Loving long layovers

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Making the most of eight hours in the Hong Kong airport

By K-L Grant

When confronted with a lengthy layover most folks head for the departure gate and hunker down with a good book or magazine. But take this approach and your memory of an airport will be of Stephan King’s latest ripper, or John Grisham’s latest thriller. A recent trip from Vancouver to Auckland was the perfect opportunity try a different approach.

As we began our descent into smog-covered Hong Kong and its miraculous island airport, I contemplated creative ways to assault my impending eight-hour layover. Time was my enemy, so I planned to seduce it, lull it and love it until it became my friend.

While other passengers raced to retrieve their baggage from overhead bins, banging elbows and bruising egos, I stretched languidly in my seat, my patience rewarded when an American gentleman voluntarily rescued my two bags for me.

I sipped water while others crammed like cattle awaiting slaughtering in the aisles, frantically going nowhere. When the doors opened, and the airplane cleared, I exited refreshed, stretched and calm. But most importantly, my eight-hour layover had already shrunk into the seven-hour mark.

My first stop after disembarking is always the washroom – a wonderful place to spend as much time as you dare. My post-flight routine invites strange looks from other passengers, but obliterates minutes as I meticulously wash my forearms, neck, face, hands and teeth. Sometimes, when there is enough bench space and no one else is waiting for a basin, I even crack open the face cream and spritz my hair with leave-in conditioner.

Landing in a new airport is disorientating, and as this was my first time in Hong Kong I was paranoid of being that tourist standing in the middle of the walkway clutching my passport and boarding pass looking up and around for non-existent signs.

Instead, I found a scenic seat beside a window, a plant and a water fountain. There was plenty of time to find my departure gate. By sitting and people watching, when I stood up to go in search of food, I was no longer a disorientated tourist but a seasoned traveller walking with purpose.

Casually strolling past the shiny, happy airport stores promising wealth and status if only you’d buy their over-priced silk ties, blemish-zapping wrinkle cream, or diamond-encrusted watches, I marveled at all the goods a writer’s budget excludes. Any money I have to spend in an airport goes on one thing and one thing only, food. My disbelief at seeing a hot tuna sandwich advertised for $20 was quickly tempered by the realization there are six Hong Kong dollars for every Canadian dollar – I won’t starve to death in the next six hours.

A leisurely stroll back down the airport located a currency exchange, and for $10Cdn I receive a $50 HK note and a smattering of coins. Local money in my pocket completes the transition from disorientated tourist to seasoned traveller.

In a quiet spot, I took the coins out and studied them, so as not to commit the faux pas of letting staff pick out appropriate payment from my outstretched palm. I was armed, and ready for food, albeit cheap food, which turned out to be a poor choice of mircowaved noodles with the consistency of warmed plastic. But the counter girl was gracious, and provided water even though I don’t ask for it. I’m not going to starve, or dehydrate and time is marching past.

The temptation after eating was to head for my departure gate, but I stuck to my plan of creatively enjoying my time in the airport and found a map to plan my next attack.

I discovered that Hong Kong Airport was displaying the winners of a recent Design Showcase. I marvelled at shoes rendered as works of art and giggled at a kids’ keyboard with arms, legs and a head. Opposite, also featured in large plastic cases, were works of art from the Hong Kong Heritage museum. While most travellers scuttled right through the middle of this exhibit, I willfully wasted away 45 minutes staring at the varied sculptures and wondering at the artists behind these works.

In between the eating, the viewing, and the people watching, I incorporated as much walking as possible, having had the good sense to limit the weight of my carry-on luggage. The walking fills in time, loosens the legs and provides the illusion of exercise.

At the three-hour mark, I hadn’t located my departure gate yet, but it was time to eat again. My budget had room for a meal at Windows on the World, where the food is cheap, yet exceptional. The tables around me filled up with lunching airport staff and I enjoyed some of the best people watching of the layover. These are the real locals, the people who live and work here, and as they know where the best food is, I’m smug at having stumbled into the locals’ lunch spot.

My consuming-time plan succeeds and during my layover it was not until the final hour that I begin watching the clock. Instead, I enjoyed moments of calm in an exceptionally clean and well-ordered airport located in one of the most populous areas of the world. Loving long layovers may be a stretch, but I did quite enjoy my Hong Kong layover.

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